A team of experts from Singapore arrives to assist in the operations; port closed for shipping activity during the night

The oil spill is under control but salvage operations off the Mumbai coast are expected to last a month, Maharashtra Environment Minister Suresh Shetty told journalists here on Monday.

A team of experts from Singapore arrived here on Monday to assist in the operations, which are primarily conducted by the Singapore-based company Smit Salvage. Owing to bad weather conditions, the work is expected to effectively start by the end of this month.

“Only two tanks of the vessel [MSC Chitra] have been reported to be damaged post collision,” the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) said. Mr. Shetty said the challenge before the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) was clearing the waters of containers which had sunk or were afloat. “The containers would be shifted to a reserved area at the JNPT,” he said.

While the ICG announced that containers of hazardous material were unaffected, there is no confirmation if any of the chemicals had leaked out into the sea.

Mr. Shetty said 31 containers carried sodium hydroxide and organophosphorus pesticides, among other hazardous material. He said if the spread of oil reached the coast or the mangroves, the administration would have to take measures to physically clean it in a time-bound manner.

“The oil spill is a potential threat to marine environment in view of its chemical characteristics. However, as of now, the situation is under control,” a defence press note said. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan on Monday issued directions to the tehsildars of coastal areas to collect water samples to detect the extent of the oil slick.

Mr. Shetty said the Panama-registered shipping companies would be liable for the losses and the environmental damage. However, an assessment is yet to be made. An alert on oil pollution has been issued to Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Raigad.

Mr. Shetty said the JNPT and the MbPT which have a Vessel Management System to guide ships, were in touch with MSC Chitra and MV Khalijia III before the collision on Saturday morning, 10 nautical miles off Mumbai. However, miscommunication between the captain and the control room, different frequency levels of the ship, radio communication and bridge watch are prima facie believed to be the reasons behind the accident.

Captains Ranjit Martin and Laxman Dubey of MSC Chitra and MV Khalijia III have been booked for negligent navigation leading to environmental degradation. However, no one has been arrested.

The Mumbai port has been closed during the night for shipping activity. Satish Agnihotri, Director General of Shipping raised concerns that the spread of oil could be affected by the wind and tide conditions. “Agencies are studying the spread of oil. We have asked them to report to us,” said. Capt. M.M.Saggi, Nautical Advisor to the Government of India. He said the culpability aspect was a matter of investigation. “The company people are here. We have to seek their assistance. They are not going to run away.”

Meanwhile, a police constable deployed on patrolling duty died on Sunday night. His body was fished out from a patrolling boat on Monday morning. The shipping companies have put up the rescued crew members of the ships in Mumbai. MSC Chitra had 37 members on board, two of whom are Pakistanis, Mr. Agnihotri said.

The Coast Guard has alerted all the industries along the coast to monitor the quality of sea water used for industrial purposes. R.K. Sharma, head media relations and public awareness, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) said BARC is only one of the agencies which has received this advice and it is not specifically targeted at BARC. The quality of water which was taken up for cooling the research reactors was being monitored physically and scientifically and till how there is no problem. BARC said a decision will be taken if necessary to stop using the sea water later but the current situation did not warrant any such step. In any case, Mr. Sharma added that BARC uses water from a depth of over a metre and oil contamination was principally on the surface of the sea.

Paul Noronha of The Hindu Businessline who travelled 40 minutes from the Gateway of India by boat to take pictures of the MSC Chitra said the weather was very bad and the sea was choppy. There was a 10-minute break when the rain stopped so they could take pictures. Helicopters were spraying dispersants on the spill and he said there was a 200-metre stretch of oil discolouring the sea. Just as he reached there, a huge container spilled out of the ship and crashed into the sea. The waters were full of debris from the ship.

Containers wash up

Oil and debris has already washed up in many parts of the shoreline and at Uran, local people were surprised to see giant containers on their beach. While not much fishing happens during the monsoon, there is a ban on taking out small boats in the entire harbour area and people have been advised not to eat sea food for a few days.

Mr. Chavan, who did an aerial survey, said this was a serious crisis. The owners of the two ships have called a foreign company to remove the containers. He said a large slick could be seen from the air and some containers were seen floating in the sea. The high tide could wash the oil towards land. The important thing was to remove the oil inside the ship.

The State government has put out an advisory against fishing and cautioned people against consuming fish or sea food fearing contamination.

The Chief Minister reposed faith in the various agencies which were dealing with the oil spill and said they were well equipped to conduct the operations.

Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, and six ships (Sankalp, Sangram, Amrit Kaur, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, Kamla Devi and C-145) combated the oil spill since dawn.

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